Star Wars

D: George Lucas (1977)

with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, voice of James Earl Jones.

The Empire Strikes Back

D: Irvin Kershner (1980)

with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, voice of James Earl Jones.

Return of the Jedi

D: Richard Marquand (1983)

with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, voice of James Earl Jones.

Luke Skywalker

Don't worry, this isn't actually a review of any of the movies listed above. Instead it is a look at the three directors who made them -- Lucas, Kershner, and Marquand (the latter two in collaboration with Lucas, a controlling creative producer) -- and where these films fit in their careers. The furor surrounding the impending release of Star Wars Part I, The Phantom Menace has become greater than any mere film. But my interest here is not in cultural phenomena or iconographic modern myth-making. At the time of their release, I was mostly interested in these films as the latest work by interesting directors. In the ongoing discussion about the Star Wars phenomenon, there has been almost no mention of Kershner and Marquand. They deserve better.

Lucas first attracted notice with his black-and-white USC short "THX 1138: 4EB/Electronic Labyrinth,"about a cold, inhospitable future where there was no individual identity. Winning a national film award, he got to observe Francis Ford Coppola at work and became the director's protégé. His short film morphed into 1970's cold and inhospitable THX 1138. The film was stunning cinematically but emotionally empty. The film bombed. The first time most of us noticed George Lucas was with the release of American Graffiti in 1973. In the shadow of Star Wars, Graffiti has lost luster. At the time it was a stunning film about us, the generation watching these movies and, now, making them. This was a film about who we were and how we imagined ourselves, made by a member of our generation. I had the same feeling reading Larry McMurtry's novel Moving On (not one of his best), when I realized in the middle that this was about us. Novels and movies always seemed about some mystical other. American Graffiti was a revelation, the great American rock & roll high school story told as an adventure unraveling over one long night. In a way, after Graffiti,Star Wars was a disappointment coming from Lucas. We expected so much more. His retirement as a director with that film made it especially dissappointing. At the time, Graffiti seemed a much more ambitious movie than even The Godfather, and Lucas more interesting a director than Coppola. Notice I say "at the time." Graffiti was a brilliantly told American epic, like Tom Sawyer, about who we, as a people, were. The Godfather seemed to be only a brilliantly done genre piece. Now, I would argue that Godfather I & II are among the 10 greatest films of all time, and Graffiti wouldn't be on that short list. But Lucas has become such a cultural institution that it is hard to remember that he was once one of the most promising of a generation of talented directors.

In the early Seventies in college in Vermont, my creative writing professor was John Irving. At the time, he had written only one novel, Setting Free the Bears. Irvin Kershner was supposed to direct a version of it, and they would travel around Europe, scouting locations. I mention this because in the early Seventies, I knew who Kershner was and watched his career. If it weren't for this connection, I'd have had no idea who he was. After a stint working on documentaries, Kershner came out swinging with a series of two-fisted, low-budget, streetwise films -- Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), The Young Captives (1959), and Hoodlum Priest (1961). Stakeout, Kershner's first feature, was, of course, produced by Roger Corman. The mature drama The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) changed Kershner's profile, as did the still-unique A Fine Madness (1966). The latter stars Sean Connery as an out-of-control poet in an uneven but often exquisite satire. The film failed at the box office but found a kind of cult success. In 1967 Kershner directed The Flim Flam Man, starring George C. Scott, and in 1970, his film Loving, with George Segal and Eva Marie Saint, was released. Irving was particularly taken with Loving and would wax rhapsodical on certain parts of the film. Setting Free the Bears was to be Kershner's next film, but it ended up being Barbra Streisand in Up the Sandbox (1972). Bears never got made. Kershner's next work was really uneven -- the awful S*P*Y*S (1974), which reunited Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland after the smashing success of MASH, the surprisingly excellent The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), andthe weak thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Then Lucas picked him to direct Empire, which turned out to be, arguably, the best of the trilogy. After Empire, his career seemed to stall. He directed Connery again in the Bond comeback Never Say Never Again (1983) and the brutal, ugly Robocop 2 (1990), but he worked more on television (Amazing Stories, SeaQuest DSV) than in features. Kershner's career had promised a director with real range and promise, but it peaked with Empire.

Although Richard Marquand had directed both features and TV movies, he first attracted our attention with Eye of the Needle (1980), a stylish Hitchcockian thriller. Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan both turned in powerful performances in this adaptation of the Ken Follett bestselling WW II thriller. It is beautifully paced, intelligently shot, and really grips the viewer. There was trepidation when the news came that Lucas had picked Marquand to direct Return. Rather than jump to big-budget, high-profile Hollywood filmmaking, it seemed to make more sense for Marquand to mature a bit more. Return, though overlong, was fine. The film's imaginative handling implied that Marquand was well on the way to fulfilling his extraordinary promise.The trepidation, however, proved justified when, after Return, he directed three disappointing films in a row: Until September (1984), the interesting but seriously flawed Jagged Edge (1985), with Jeff Bridges and Glenn Close, and Hearts of Fire (1987) with Bob Dylan, Ian Drury, and Rupert Everett, among others. The promise of Eye of the Needle was never fulfilled, and Return proved Marquand's most successful film.

Now, we begin again. Another trilogy and, as before, Lucas is the first up to bat. We will see where this will lead. --Louis Black

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